How-To: Planning a Trip/Route (with Google Earth, GPX, KML, and more)

turbodb

Well-known member
How-to: Planning a Trip/Route Part 1 (with Google Earth, GPX, KML, and more)

Route planning for an offroad adventure can be daunting to say the least. Just finding a geographical area to explore is often time consuming, and that doesn't even take into account the time spent figuring out the cool things to visit in that area and how exactly to get to those things (i.e. the actual route). Oh, and then there's navigating that route when you're out in the wild - often without any type of internet connectivity.

Because of this, two of the most common questions I see on the interwebs are:

How do you plan your routes? Where to go and how far you'll make it each day. Where you'll camp, etc.
I'm headed to {some place}. Anyone have any suggestions of trails I should run, or totally awesome camp sites in the area?
Usually when these questions are asked, there are no meaningful answers in the rest of the thread - for good reasons:
  1. Most have no idea how to answer, because they are in the same boat.
  2. People who do know how to route plan, and who have discovered amazing routes don't necessarily want to share those routes with others. Well, not "others" so much as "everyone," which is what answering a question like that on the internet would be. If the route were shared with the internet, it would quickly get overrun, and no longer be the majestically beautiful place previously was.
  3. Route planning is complicated and time consuming. Explaining it is also complicated and time consuming. And frankly, it would just be too much work to constantly write up every time the question was asked.
So then, here's what I'm going to try to do: I'm going to try to give a sense of my personal route planning process. This isn't the only process (or set of tools) out there - everyone who has figured out route planning has their own process - but it's one that mostly works for me (so far). I'm going to do this by walking through planning part of an actual route that I've run. It's not going to be a complicated route, or a remote route (because I don't want to give those away to the internet), but it will have all the elements of any route one would create.

Hopefully it's helpful. If it's not, well - I definitely encourage you to figure out a route planning process that works for you!

What are we going to cover?

There's a ton to cover in route planning, so I'm going to break the topic into two posts (each of which will be too long themselves)! In them, I'll cover:
  1. Planning and building a route
    • Where to go and an initial list of what to see (points of interest)
    • Building a route using Google Earth to create tracks
    • Adding route detail, iterating on the route and points of interest
    • Planning distances and camp site
  2. Using the route on your adventure
    • Setting up a tablet for navigation
    • Exporting a route to the tablet for in-vehicle use
    • Prepping the tablet for offline use when you're on the trail
So let's get started.

Planning and building a route

Before we get started actually planning and building a route, let me state right up front that planning is tedious and time consuming. If you've ever painted a house, then you know that prepping for paint takes 75% of the time. That's the same with an adventure - the route planning can take longer than the trip itself (at least for me). The nice thing is that it happens in the comfort of your own home, allowing you to take breaks, get distracted, etc.!

Where to go and an initial list of what to see (points of interest)

The first step in planning a route is deciding on the general area you want to visit, and the type of trip you want to have - i.e. are you looking for something that's on mostly paved roads, gravel, or unmaintained dirt? Do you want to camp in campgrounds with bathrooms, or are you looking for a secluded spot with a private view? These things are often but not always intertwined - if you're looking for something "more civilized" then you want to look at state or national parks, and you're generally looking at "more mainstream attractions" in those types of places. On the other hand, if you want dirt roads and solitude, that can inform the fact that you should be looking away from national parks, or at least away from their main attractions.

As I mentioned previously, to make this more real I'm going to plan part of an actual route throughout this post. I think a great general area to plan that route would be Death Valley National Park. It's a great option because it's a relatively well known place (so I'm not giving away any secrets) while still having many points of interest (with varying remoteness) to explore.

So now we have our general area: Death Valley.


The next step in route planning is to find some points of interest for your trip (places to go, things to see). There are two main resources that I take advantage of at this point:
  1. The internet via search engines
  2. People I know who have gone to the general area
#2 should be pretty obvious, so I'll touch on it only briefly. If you have friends who have been to - people you physically talk to or correspond with 1:1 (i.e. not "friends on the internet in some forum or on facebook") - then ask them what they recommend seeing. Just get a list of points of interest from them. You can then search for those things online to get more details.

For #1, start by searching for generic terms about the place you want to visit - "Death Valley" and maybe "Death Valley trails" in this case. From there, click on links that peak your interest. Perform additional searches for those interesting items, and don't just limit yourself to "normal" search results. Look at "image" and "video" search results as well - if you click on an image, Google will show you more info about the image, including the page that contains that image. Clicking through to that page can get you more information about a place you may want to go.




There are several types of results you are looking for when you're searching. In the order of most-to-least valuable (usually):
  1. GPS tracks for a route you're interested in - sometimes you'll "get lucky" and find an actual track, or a web site with a bunch/set of tracks.
  2. A trip report - a blog, photo journal, etc. from someone who's to the same place before, and written about it, ideally with landmarks you can follow on a map.
  3. Names of places - just a name or photo that you can us to search for more information, or look for on a map.
As you find interesting places, catalog and bookmark them; you'll come back to those bookmarks when you're done - and if they are well categorized, you may come back to them for years to come. Spend as much time as you need, over several days until you've built up a bunch of bookmarks.


For Death Valley, with a bit of searching, let's say that we came up with the following list of bookmarks for places we wanted to see:
  • Teakettle Junction
  • Ubehebe Crater
  • The Racetrack
  • Titus Canyon
  • Goler Wash
  • Eureka Dunes
  • Saline Valley
  • Badwater Basin
but, as anyone who has visited Death Valley will know, while the places above are all technically in Death Valley, they are quite a long distance apart - you'd likely need more than a week to visit them comfortably.

Building a route using Google Earth to create tracks

So, the next step is to create a set of routes that will get us to the places we've gathered, so we can see how they relate to each other spatially (on a map), and which ones we can visit over the course of a trip. There are many ways to do this, but the tool I use is Google Earth - mostly because it's got a good set of maps (being Google), and because I figure it will be around for a while (again, Google).

I should note that Google Earth can be a bit daunting the first several times you use it, but if you master a few of the basics, it's not that bad (and you can learn more over time). For the purpose of this post, I'll walk through creation of just one route; obviously you could create the others in exactly the same way.

Since it's so beautiful and since it's "on the way into Death Valley," the route I'll cover here is Titus Canyon.


So let's get started.

Unfortunately, that's as long a post as ExPo allows - I've hit my 10K character limit. Not to worry, you can pick up the instructions here:
Planning a Trip/Route Part 1 (Google Earth, GPX, KML, and more)


- - - - -​

Next time, we'll pick up with part 2 - how to move the route to a tablet and actually using it on your adventure! If you've got questions, feel free to add them below the post and I'll try to address them as quickly as possible.



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turbodb

Well-known member
Interesting topic! So, can you not use Google maps in the same capacity as Google earth?
You can use Google maps to an extent, and in certain situations Google maps can make things much easier.

I'll cover that situation in a later post.

Unfortunately, Google maps have a lot of limitations. For instance you can only have 10 layers, which means 10 or fewer routes mapped in a single map. Additionally, the ability to draw custom lines and create custom waypoints is much reduced. And of course, there is the online / offline difference as far as your file goes.

So, I find that using Google Earth for persistence of my data is the most flexible way to go, but I do use Google maps for some track creation.
 

turbodb

Well-known member
OK, so now that we've manually created a route (you read the remainder of the previous part here, right? ;) ) it's time for part 2:

Planning a Trip/Route Part 2 (Taking the GPX on the Road)

So, you've done your research and created a route that you're super-jazzed about. If you're anything like me, it's taken you days. Or weeks. Months of work (on-and-off), even. That's awesome - you're in a small class of folks who do detailed route planning. Now it's time to get out there! You know, like this...


Seriously though - the hard part is done, now comes the fun part - seeing the beauty that nature has to offer. Here I'll cover how I take a route and use it to guide the adventure. As always, there are many ways to do this using all different sorts of technology. But this is what I do. We'll look at:
  • Setting up a tablet for navigation
  • Exporting a route to the tablet for in-vehicle use
  • Prepping the tablet for offline use when you're on the trail
Equipment selection
Before we get into setting up the tablet, let's talk about the hardware itself for a moment. I use an Android tablet - specifically a Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0, with 16GB of RAM and a 64GB or larger SD card. Here's why:
  1. As long as you get one with GPS capabilities, a tablet is much more functional than a standalone GPS unit, if you're willing to create your own maps (which is exactly what we're doing here).
  2. I choose Android over iOS because of cost - Android devices are a fraction of the cost.
  3. I choose an 8-inch screen because I like to keep the tablet mounted high on the dash. A larger screen would block either my AC vents or the windshield.
  4. I choose a tablet with 16GB of RAM (vs. 32GB or more) because I don't care how much storage is on the actual device - that's what the SD card is for. And again, that keeps cost down. A good SD Card is cheap (I recommend this 64GB, or this 128GB card).
And, I should note - the Tab A 8.0 is a cheap tablet - if you spend more you can get a faster processor or better screen, but I don't feel like I've really needed those. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, and the Lenovo Tab 4 8" are two other tablets that I'd consider. In fact, I'm now running the Lenovo, after realizing how garbage the Samsung Tab A's screen is.

Setting up the tablet for navigation
Getting the tablet setup is relatively easy - there are really only a few steps.
  1. Make sure you have WiFi on and that you are connected to a network.
  2. Make sure you have location services turned on in your tablet Settings. Obviously, to use the GPS, any navigation app will need access to accurate location information.
  3. Download a navigation application. I'm a fan of Backcountry Navigator TOPO GPS (the paid version - $12 at the time of writing) onto your tablet because it's got a ton of features and is relatively straightforward to use (as straightforward as any of these type of apps).


  4. Insert your SD card if it isn't already.
  5. Configure Backcountry Navigator to save data to the SD card rather than built-in memory by:
    1. Tap on Menu > Settings > Storage Options > Storage Root(Advanced).
    2. Select the External Storage Card that is presented (if it is not already in the Current section).
    3. Click SAVE.

Exporting a route to the tablet for in-vehicle use
With the tablet setup, it's time to get the route we created exported so we can see it on the tablet as an overlay on a map. As you can imagine, this too is relatively easy to do.
  1. Connect the tablet to your computer using the USB cable and make sure you've enabled file transfers (vs. just charging). This is generally done by pulling down the notification menu and tapping USB connection > For file transfer.
  2. On your computer, find the KMZ or KML route file you created with Google Earth and copy it to the Download folder on your tablet (generally This PC > Galaxy Tab A > Tablet > Download).
  3. On the tablet, open Backcountry Navigator.
  4. Import the route file by tapping Trip Data > Import Tracks or Waypoints.
  5. The next screen should already show the Download folder, and you should see your route file listed. If it doesn't, navigate to your route file (likely KMZ or KML) and tap it to bring up the Import GPS Data screen.

  6. Generally on the Import GPS Data screen, you can simply tap Start Import (to the Existing Trip Database named default). However, take a quick look at the settings and make sure they are what you want before tapping Start Import.
  7. Backcountry Navigator will then import all of the tracks (routes) and waypoints (placemarks) from your file and display them on the map. If they aren't in view, pan and zoom the map to bring them into view.


    Nice. You now have maps on your tablet, and if you have internet connectivity (via WiFi or cellular), you can navigate a trip. Of course, on a great trip you won't have either, so let's deal with that situation...

Prepping the tablet for offline use when you're on the trail
When you go offline, the tablet will continue to show your tracks and waypoints - those are stored on the SD card if you followed the instructions above. However, unlike when you're sitting at home connected to WiFi, Backcountry Navigator won't be able to download maps, unless you've stored those on the SD card as well. Follow these steps to download the relevant maps for offline use.

- - - - -

As generally seems to be the case, 10K characters isn't enough for a detailed post. Read the rest of the steps here:
Planning a Trip/Route Part 2 (Taking the GPX on the Road)
 

turbodb

Well-known member
Part 3: Planning a Route the Easy Way (Google My Maps, GPSVisualizer, and Earth)

Like anything in life, the more routes I've planned, the more efficient I've gotten. Sometimes it's just learning keyboard shortcuts or faster ways to do the things I was already doing. But sometimes, it's learning a whole new workflow that really saves a bunch of time.

Today, I want to share a new workflow I learned from Monte @Blackdawg for creating a track / route / path. One that saves a ton of time - minutes at least, and sometimes hours. So let's get started.

What are we trying to optimize?

Previously, I related two methods of track creation. The first was semi-automated in Google Earth, where you could create two points, then "Get Directions" between those two points. In some cases (probably about 50%), Google Earth would generate a track between the two points on the road(s) you wanted to travel, and you could copy that track into your project - just a few minutes of work. The second was a manual process of creating a new path, and then clicking along the road you want to drive, building up the track over the course of hundreds (or thousands) of points - sometimes hours of work.


With either of these options, the biggest problem is that if you want to edit the track - say, change the middle section of it to use a different road - it's very difficult. You essentially have to delete all the points that were previously generated, and then manually (slowly) click along the road you really wanted to take.

What if you could just drag any point on the track to a new location, and have the entire track "snap" to that new point?

So, what's the optimization?

The optimization is to use Google My Maps to create the track (or even better - multiple tracks) between various points by dragging and dropping points, and then to use GPSVisualizer to convert that online map to a set of tracks that can be imported/opened in Google Earth, so you can copy them into your project.

Let's do it!

Building a route using Google My maps to create tracks

We're going to create a track for Titus Canyon Road - the same road we created a track for manually in Part 1.
  1. Start by opening Google My Maps at https://www.google.com/mymaps/?hl=en
  2. Next, create a new map by clicking on the +CREATE NEW MAP button.
  3. With your new blank map created, you want to create directions from one place to another, so click on the Add Directions button in the toolbar. When you do this, you'll see a new layer added to your map, with two text boxes for the start (A) and end (B) points of the directions.

  1. In the first text box (A), start typing Titus Canyon - you'll see autocomplete starts working for you, and one of the options suggested is Titus Canyon Trailhead. Select it.
  2. In the second text box (B), start typing Titus Canyon again, and this time select Titus Canyon Road in the autocomplete. My Maps will draw a track between your two points for you!

Now for the awesome part - you can click anywhere on the track and move that point to another location. In this case, the start of the track is correct, but Titus Canyon Road continues much further into California, so we'll update it.
  1. Click on the (B) point in the track to select the track (layer) if it's not already selected.
  2. Click and hold on the (B) point on the track and drag it to the west to the intersection with Scotty's Castle Road.

    Note: When you drop the point, you may notice that the track completely redraws to use paved roads within Death Valley. (Oh no, that's not what we want! ...but don't worry...)
  3. To re-route the track where you want it, hover over the track just before the (B) point and you'll notice a small circle appear. Click and drag that circle back onto Titus Canyon Road.

    Note: The track has now drawn completely as you want it, but you could continue to drag points to create a longer track if you wanted.

  1. Click on the Title of the layer and rename it to Titus Canyon Road, then click Save.

Repeat the steps above to create up to 10 tracks quickly in Google My Maps. Once you've gotten all of your tracks, it's time to convert them to Google Earth.

Converting your Google Map to Google Earth (using GPSVisualizer)

With the track(s) created, the next step is to convert them to the KML format for Google Earth, using a free online site called GPSVisualizer.

- - - - -

To see how to do that, read the rest of the post here:
Planning a Route the Easy Way (Google My Maps, GPSVisualizer, and Earth)
 

AndrewO11

New member
I use MapQuest navigation ahead of time to get times and distances, my Iphone GPS app for directions and when and where to turn; and Road Ahead for restaurants, hotels, and gas stations organized by exits ahead.
 
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